“Ten times as many climbers have stood on top of Mount Everest than have hiked the entire El Camino de Costa Rica,” our guide shared with us as we took our first tentative steps along this ultimate of hikes. Six distinct climates zones, two mountain ranges, virgin tropical rainforest, several river crossings, encounters with Indigenous peoples and 280 kilometers stretched in front of us.
He continued: “Every day will offer you endless beauty, physical challenges and a bounty of opportunities to view nature.”
In retrospect, he understated on all counts.
El Camino de Costa Rica was finally completed just two years ago, after many years of development. Its 280 kilometres link together trails across private lands and nature preserves, backcountry roads and paths through Indigenous lands to provide a coast-to-coast hike across Costa Rica, from Quepos on the Pacific coast to Parismina on the Atlantic. It was created by volunteers to provide better access to seldom-visited parts of the country, support the development of Indigenous communities and to facilitate the experiencing of nature in its pure and untamed state. Being a mere baby on the world-hiking scene explains El Camino’s exclusivity (just a few hundred people have completed it) and its unparalleled opportunity to go where few have gone before.
Hiking with a guide is advised as the route still requires clear markings in several sections, there are natural dangers that need to be avoided and some areas (Indigenous lands and private reserves) require advance permission to enter. My group was small (five walkers plus a guide at its largest) and its size varied during the two weeks on the trail as some hikers dropped in for just sections. Only two of us completed the entire trek. (Sixteen days is the suggested amount of time to walk the full length.)
As our guide predicted, every day presented its own challenges and wonders. Slogging through a mud-covered trail in a remote private forest preserve for hours then stopping to watch a resplendent quetzal bird preen on a treetop for 20 minutes. Sweltering on a hot humid day near the Caribbean coast, then being offered cold water by a resident along the way. Climbing ever upward into the Talamanca Mountains to arrive at a family run soda (small café) built high on a ridge with sweeping 180-degree views of the Pacific Ocean. Washing off the day’s sweat and toil in a roadside waterfall. Slugging along a cinder road for hours only to look up and see a volcano cone smoking just kilometres away.
Our day typically started at dawn so we could get the bulk of our hiking done before the heat and humidity set in. It became a familiar route: a hearty breakfast, a rundown of the day’s itinerary, then 15 to 22 kilometers of hiking followed by a late lunch, usually comprised of area produce. After the day’s walk we had the afternoon to explore our surroundings, relax, read a book, socialize with locals or members of our group, take photographs, engage in an optional activity such as horseback riding or perhaps just take a nap. Sometimes our evening group dinners were cooked by women supporting tourism in their communities, or chefs showcasing Costa Rican cuisine. We never went hungry.
My personal reasons for hiking El Camino were twofold. First, I wanted to explore this amazing country in what I consider the best way possible: on foot. I longed to experience the culture, cuisine and nature of Costa Rica slowly, leisurely and at eye level. I wished to meet locals by overnighting in their homes, walking through their communities or eating at family run cafés and to visit the farms that produced some of the world’s best coffee and bananas. I wanted to listen to Indigenous elders describe their lives from long ago. The journey delivered by offering all of these opportunities.
I also wanted to test myself against the physical challenge the newness and length of El Camino presented. The tourism infrastructure in the interior of the country is still in development, which means that lodgings in some places are rustic and in other places downright comfy. The elevation changes and distances covered are not trifling and an intermediate level of hiking ability is necessary.
Images forever etched in my memory include the sweeping 360-degree views from 2,400 metres in the Talamanca Mountains, the mist burning off the rows of coffee plants at dawn and the first sight of the sparkling blue waters of the Pacific. I will also never forget the proud independence of the Indigenous peoples, the warmth of the friendly Caribbean coast, the peaceful serenity of virgin forest and the richness of the varied cuisines.
Perhaps above all else I will cherish the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day – and the welcoming smiles that were always waiting.
We ended the hike of El Camino as we began it, by ceremonially touching the salt water of each coast. As I dipped my tired feet into the Caribbean Sea it dawned on me: I crossed a continent, one step at a time.
El Camino de Costa Rica is rated “hard,” and is best suited to experienced hikers with proper gear. It can be walked starting either at the Pacific or the Caribbean. The trail is indicated with hummingbird symbols or red and white stripes indicating the route. However the trail needs more way-marking and in many places, it is easy to lose your way.
It is highly recommended that hikers use a guide as special permissions are required to cross private lands or enter Indigenous areas. Many of the accommodations or home-stays do not have websites, but can be prearranged by tour operators. The entire length of El Camino de Costa Rica takes two weeks but there are several shorter or easier sections that have been established for varying levels of fitness and lengths of time. For more information visit caminodecostarica.org.
Getting there: Copa Airlines, Avianca, Air Canada and WestJet all fly direct flights from Toronto to San Jose. El Camino tour operators will either pick up hikers in San Jose or can assist in getting you to the pick up location.
When to go: The trail can be walked any time, but heavy rains can make the hiking difficult in October and November.
Where to stay: The Serenity Boutique Hotel is cozy, quiet lodging in Quepos, Costa Rica. Mere meters away from the end/start point of the hike. Located in the lively marina town of Quepos it offers a serene place to recover after your hike or as a base of operations to explore the stunning Pacific coast. Close to Manual Antonio national park, restaurants, world class beaches and pubs. A beautiful pool to soak the aches away and comfortable rooms make it a welcome stopover. Double rooms from US$90 a night including breakfast; serenityhotelcostarica.com
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